Are we really Bannon fodder in an information war?
If I start rabbiting on about global conspiracies, fake news, an evil genius behind Donald Trump and the UK Leave campaign, an information war and bots battling bots, you might sigh, and think the old boy’s gone slightly loopy. Or you might think “seen that, read that, got the tee shirt”. And read no further.
But hold hard. I’m getting a bit tired of all that stuff too. It’s done, isn’t it? Brexit is happening. Trump won. Game over.
I’m not so sure. I’ve been pondering a recent article by Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the title, it’s British, mainstream media, liberal, therefore “failing”).
The piece is worth reading, because it pulls many strands together into a reasonably coherent. over-arching narrative that explains why and how a former IBM computer scientist appears to have influenced voters in the UK and the US sufficiently to tip the balance in favour of Trump and Brexit. Not only that, but why the techniques he and his companies developed have profound implications for all of us going forward.
It’s a long piece, and not an easy read. I had to go through bits of it several times to get a proper grasp of what she’s saying.
If you don’t have the time or patience to read the original, here’s a summary of her main points:
Robert Mercer is a billionaire hedge fund owner who has bankrolled several organisations in order to promote his right-wing, libertarian views. He is a former IBM employee with a deep understanding of Big Data.
He’s a buddy of Steve Bannon and an investor in right-wing news site Breitbart. Another of the companies in which Mercer has invested is Cambridge Analytica, who have amassed profiles of over 220 million Americans based on data hoovered up from Facebook. Using artificial intelligence and working with information gathered from the likes we click on a daily basis, CA is able to help politicians tailor messages that tap into and manipulate the emotions of targeted voters.
Cambridge Analytica worked for Trump, and also provided support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign – the latter for no charge. It is basically, according to Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, a propaganda machine.
The company inherited a number of its techniques from another company in which Mercer is involved – the SCL Group, from which it was spun off in 2013. The two companies retain close links.
According to Cadawalladr, the relationship between the two companies is thus:
“Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but it’s SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level – for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others – in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.”
So these guys are manipulating search results on Google, and flooding the online media with individually-targeted ads and links to right-wing websites. The objective is to influence us personally, and at the same time reduce our access to “mainstream media” that might propagate a contrary view by replacing them with the likes of Breitbart. If you’re in the UK, imagine you had no choice of traditional newspaper except for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. In the US, imagine life without the New York Times and the Washington Post.
More from the Guardian piece:
“This is a strategic, long-term and really quite brilliant play. In the 1990s, Bannon explained, conservative media couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber”.
As, it turns out, the liberal media is now. We are scattered, separate, squabbling among ourselves and being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. Increasingly, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s map of the news and information ecosystem shows how rightwing sites are dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.
Is there a central intelligence to that, I ask Albright? “There has to be. There has to be some type of coordination. You can see from looking at the map, from the architecture of the system, that this is not accidental. It’s clearly being led by money and politics.””
So what have we here? a cyber-Bilderberg group? Perhaps.
Meanwhile, we have the Russians with their “information warfare troops”, busily promoting fake news, not in order to get people to believe these stories, but to spread confusion among their nation state rivals. If you don’t know what is true or false, it follows that you will distrust everything you read.
Back in the West, Mr Mercer and his friends in the White House are operating on the old Goebbels principle that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.
In addition to Cambridge Analytica and SCL, Mercer and Bannon have a third tool for manipulation called the Government Accountability Institute. It uses Mercer’s money to research stories that the mainstream media can no longer afford to work on. It places these stories, that support the right-wing narrative, with mainstream media such as the New York Times. It even has a computer scientist who trawls the dark web in search of dirt.
Then there are the bots. Automated accounts on Twitter and other sites designed to look and feel like real people. The Russians and their western counterparts are extensive users of bots that lie dormant until activated to achieve a specific end. Apparently one third of tweets in the UK referendum campaign were posted by computers, not people. In the US election, the bots were five-to-one in favour of Trump.
The kind of big data that Mercer’s affiliates are using for political purposes are also starting to be used by hedge funds. Track emotions and trends on Twitter, and with a bit of AI wizardry you can predict market changes and gain an edge over your rivals.
Cadwalladr’s piece is suffused with technical terms that have military overtones: psyops, cognitive warfare, bio-psycho-social profiling, weaponised narratives. Not surprising, because many of these techniques began life in the Pentagon and the Kremlin.
So there we have it. Political and financial manipulation. Targeting the likes of you and me by “knowing us better than we know ourselves”. Squeezing out the mainstream media. Spreading confusion and despair. Provoking anger. Changing national narratives. Information warfare.
Welcome to the new politics.
So what are we ordinary members of the public – with one vote, no power, no influence and no money to speak of – to make of all this stuff?
When I talked to my wife about it, she was unsurprised. Because, as she pointed out, there are a thousand and one novels out there with stories of conspiracies, plots to undermine the world order, sinister masterminds, and abundant spy stuff.
And yes, ever since James Bond started saving the world, we’ve been fascinated by Spectre, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Goldfinger and the rest of Fleming’s rich repertoire of power-hungry evil geniuses.
Yet in the days of early Bond, I used to laugh at the idea that any non-governmental organisation would be wealthy and powerful enough to launch satellites, hijack space shuttles, build monster submarines and create command centres deep in the jungle that could bring death and destruction upon the world.
Not now. We have private companies planning to go to Mars. We have billionaires designing hyperloops to take us from Los Angeles to San Francisco in twenty minutes. We have massively powerful billionaires with retail empires and payment systems. We have hedge funds packed with Nobel-grade mathematicians. We have an IT billionaire leading efforts to eradicate malaria. Those who make their money in one area are not afraid to spend it in another – like Gates, Thiel, Musk, and Bezos. Not to mention the shadowy Robert Mercer.
As I’ve said more than once before in this blog (here for example), I’m not a great fan of conspiracy theories. I subscribe to the Principle of the Obvious: if something looks like a pig, walks like a pig and oinks like a pig, it probably is a pig, unless you can prove to me conclusively otherwise.
The problem is that if, like me, you’re a fully paid-up sceptic, you can ignore stuff that turns out actually to be a conspiracy. Like Watergate. If, on the other hand, you’re a true believer, and you map the theories on to your world view, you will end up believing that Hillary is part of an alien cabal, or that a Democrat paedophile ring operates out of a pizza shop in Washington DC.
But if you sit halfway between the extremes, and you are determined to keep an open mind on who killed Kennedy or caused 9/11, you risk being thrown into a state of total confusion when you are bombarded by theories that are diametrically opposed to each other. You start saying to yourself “I don’t know what to believe any more”. You have been softened up.
And then somebody comes along and starts banging on about immigration, and sends the same messages over and over, using words and phrases that you use yourself on the social media and among friends, and using stories that help make sense of your own experience. You become a believer.
How is this different from traditional politics? The difference is that until now politicians would broadcast to the multitude in the hope that their message would get through to you. Now they have the tools to speak to you – and only you.
Ever noticed how you search a travel website for a weekend in Paris, and suddenly you are bombarded on Facebook with offers of flights to Paris? Even if you’re not on Facebook, the fact that you’re interested in Paris is out there. It can be used to build a profile of you. You have spare cash. You like travelling in Europe. Maybe you would like to buy a property in Provence. Maybe you would like a Euro-denominated bank account. As if by magic, these things are being sold to you.
Have you ever done one of those silly online quizzes that tells you what sort of animal you’re like, or tells you your mental age? Have you asked what happens to your answers? Probably not. It’s just for fun, isn’t it? Think again.
What about data protection, you ask? Then ask yourself how often you’ve registered with a website and pressed the agree button without reading the terms and conditions relating to the sharing of your data? I know I have.
Have I worked you up into a lather of paranoia yet? Perhaps you’re paranoid already. Perhaps you don’t use the internet for anything – at least voluntarily. The trouble is that you can only escape the net if you live in a cave. Infrastructures depend on it.
Having wound you up, let me now go into sceptic mode and pour some cold water upon your fevered brow.
I don’t believe we’re yet in thrall to the likes of Bannon, Mercer and the shadowy information warriors in the Kremlin. If their techniques are so powerful, how is it that they haven’t used them to pacify the suicide bombers of ISIS, and to turn the Afghans against the Taliban? How is it that the internet users of the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States for example, have not been transformed into docile lovers of the West who conform to western definitions of “moderate Islam”? How is it that Russia is still perceived as a threat to western values? How is it that Israel is not more widely respected for its democratic values?
The answer is that information warfare is a patchy weapon at best. An Afghan tribesman without access to the internet is unlikely to be impressed with cyber-propaganda. A Saudi who believes in tradition, family and deeply-embedded religious practice will not easily be persuaded to abandon those beliefs because of a few YouTube videos urging the government to allow women to drive, or advocating the end of the death penalty. For every video and tweet sending a message of liberal reform, there are at least as many trying to hold the line.
In countries that tolerate a degree of debate online, for every narrative there is a counter-narrative. Information warfare, after all, can’t take place unless there are opposing parties. In the United States, if Mercer and Bannon stole a march on the Democrats in 2016, you can be sure that Trump’s opponents are busy creating counter-measures right now. 2020 might be a different story altogether.
As for Trump himself, if his dealings with the Russians before the election, and his lies about them thereafter, turn out to be sufficiently serious and proven, all the efforts of Mercer and Bannon will not save him.
The very fact that the tactics used to put Trump in the White House and drag the UK out of the European Union are becoming increasingly known and understood is some assurance that they will not be so effective next time round. The element of surprise will have been lost.
Still, the idea that we will continue to be helpless cannon fodder in the war between manipulative narratives isn’t very comforting.
But that helplessness is in itself a market opportunity. Just as for years companies like Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky have made money by protecting us from malware – worms, viruses and so forth – new players might emerge who will help us to protect our data, and help us to prevent ourselves from being manipulated without our knowing it, by more clearly identifying the provenance of information we receive and the destiny of the information we provide.
Governments can also play their part by tightening data protection laws and prosecuting offenders. Should the consequences of Brexit and the Trump presidency turn out to be as disastrous as some predict, you would hope that they will act on the lessons learned.
And we can help ourselves. By being sceptical, by encouraging others not to accept stuff they read without a pinch of salt. By teaching ourselves to question before we judge. By reading the small print on internet sites we use. And by using the tools we have at our disposal – be they online or physical – to protest, complain, influence or simply register our disapproval.
Castles rise and castles fall. We are not helpless or powerless. At least not yet.